There comes a moment in your nursing career when you start to question everything. You start to wonder if it’s even worth the physical labor, emotional strain, and constant heartache that defines being a nurse. If you work at the bedside, you’ve commiserated more than you’d like to admit. If you’re in administration, you’re second-guessing your position as a liaison between your core beliefs and the vested interests of your institution. If you’re not a nurse, you’re wondering why anyone would ever want to become one. See, that’s the sick and twisted irony of it all: those of us who remain at the bedside without a grand plan or defined exit strategy…we bank the big saves. We collect the victories. We hold fast to the moments that define who we are at the very core: the simple conversations and the heroic endeavors impact us equally. We trudge through the shit storm and keep our eyes peeled for the rainbow, because that’s the only way to move forward. I’ve asked countless nurses at every level of their nursing career: “Why do you stay?”
While the answer isn’t always the same, there is one common thread that connects the newbie to the veteran: certain elements of nursing are like a drug. It’s addictive. And much like an addict suffers the aftermath of coming down from a high, we, too, endure the professional side effects for just one more opportunity to change another person’s life. I know this doesn’t apply to every nurse out there…but I have to assume that, no matter where you practice, you’ve gotten off on the idea of altering another human being’s existence for better through your craft. For some of us, that means Grey’s Anatomy shit: blood, drugs, and adrenaline create the high. For others, it’s the connection – the ability to offer support to another life who so desperately needs it – that gets you off. For others still, it’s the unpredictable nature of the beast: every day will bring something different, and that excitement is intoxicating. Some nurses find teaching to create the desired effect: whether informally as an asset to colleagues or through formal instruction, there is something satisfying about watching minds process and digest information. Maybe you’ve cared for long term patients and have connected with the patient and their loved ones – your drug is one of comfort. Regardless of the circumstances, every nurse has a story to share…one that made her feel like the long, hard shifts were worth the struggles.
I keep my own stash of drugs in my nursing pocket. I have my own collection of victories that keep me coming back for more. And I would admittedly give anything to feel that nursing high on any given shift. But I start to question when the nursing drug will finally lose its effect…when I will need more and more to get that same feeling. I am concerned about how to get my fix, when I often work with the impact of an institutional hangover. I love the high. While I’m on the clock, I live for the rush. But I am starting to wonder whether this nursing drug is enough. I question how much damage it’s doing to my body. I consider what destruction it may cause to my psyche. Because like any drug – with enough time, the risk outweighs the reward. When does the overdose finally set in? When does that rush turn into numbness? When does the adrenaline convert to emptiness? When is active engagement transformed to burnout?
We are high. We are addicts. And soon…we will be fried. We fixate on the very thing that helps us justify the madness. We self-medicate with the desire to serve humanity in whatever capacity that might mean to us as individuals: be it to heal the sick, or heal our own sense of self worth. We risk damage in the combat against death and disease – and with that nursing high, forget to feel our own pain. We are reminded late at night…early in the morning…on that car ride home. We come down from the high…we go too long without a hit of our critical thinking; compassionate caring; adaptable natured smack…and we regress. We fight with our families. We ignore our friends. We roll our eyes at the problems of others because they have not yet known what it means to deal with an emergency. We dismiss. We deflect. We digress from the very conversations we need to experience – the deep ones; the dark ones; the ones that allow our inner demons to resurface; because we are embarrassed and exhausted and afraid. We inject our nursing drug to mask the pain. We snort our nursing drug to feel bigger than ourselves. But when it’s all washed out…when the drug fades away…we are empty. We are broken. We are alone.
We’ve all been taught to just say no. To stay away. To find another option and live another way. Yet we are a profession filled with junkies, searching for the wrong kind of fix. It’s time to clean up our acts. It’s time to admit we have a problem. It’s time to overcome the addiction.